As I recently highlighted, primatologist Marc van Roosmalen was sentenced to 16 years in Brazilian prison for alleged “biopiracy”. The case outraged scientists around the world and Roosmalen’s lawyers were able to have him released from custody pending appeal.
An article in today’s New York Times details his conviction and why Brazil has been so harsh in it’s laws regulating the nation’s biological inheritance. As the Times reports:
Fears of biopiracy, loosely defined as any unauthorized acquisition or transport of genetic material or live flora and fauna, are deep and longstanding in Brazil. Nearly a century ago, for example, the Amazon rubber boom collapsed after Sir Henry Wickham, a British botanist and explorer, spirited rubber seeds out of Brazil and sent them to colonies in Ceylon and Malaya (now Sri Lanka and Malaysia), which quickly dominated the international market.
In the 1970s, the Squibb pharmaceutical company used venom from the Brazilian arrowhead viper to help develop captopril, used to treat hypertension and congestive heart failure, without payment of the royalties Brazilians think are due them. And more recently, Brazilian Indian tribes have complained that samples of their blood, taken under circumstances they say were unethical, were being used in genetic research around the world.
Such biopiracy is widespread around the world. As genes and chemicals derived from the world's biodiversity have allowed companies to make fortunes, the rush to control those resources has been fierce. Indian physicist and environmental activist Vandana Shiva has written about how such policies have taken advantage of poor countries in her book Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge:
“At the heart of Columbus's "discovery" was the treatment of piracy as a natural right of the colonizer, necessary for the deliverance of the colonized. . . . Biopiracy is the Columbian “discovery” 500 years after Columbus. Patents are still the means to protect this piracy of the wealth of non-Western peoples as a right of Western powers.
Through patents and genetic engineering, new colonies are being carved out. The land, the forests, the rivers, the oceans, and the atmosphere have all been colonized, eroded, and polluted. . . Resistance to biopiracy is a resistance to the ultimate colonization of life itself – of the future of evolution as well as the future of non-Western traditions of relating to and knowing nature. It is a struggle to protect the freedom of diverse species to evolve. It is a struggle to protect the freedom of diverse cultures to evolve. It is a struggle to conserve both cultural and biological diversity.
Dr. Shiva has become an international spokesperson for those who have been taken advantage of in this new rush for biological gold. For example, attempts by Texas-based Rice-Tec to patent Basmati rice (a variety developed though thousands of years of Indian agricultural innovation), was thwarted largely due to her group’s efforts. An ongoing campaign is challenging Monsanto’s patenting of seed and preventing poor farmers from saving and sharing their seed as they’ve done for centuries.
While much of the commentary surrounding Dr. van Roosmalen's arrest has been focused on the draconian laws of the Brazilian government, what has been lost is why Brazil initiated such harsh laws in the first place. Western countries have been stealing the region's natural resources for five hundred years. The people of Brazil are understandably peeved and less likely to trust Western scientists.
Dr. van Roosmalen has clearly been improperly convicted for his work on behalf of science and conservation, work that all Brazilians ultimately benefit from. However, rather than quickly condemn the country for their "backwards ways" it might be wise to take a good, long look in the mirror to understand why such reactions would have arisen in the first place. Dr. van Roosmalen, it seems, has been ensnared in what the CIA refers to as "blowback," the unintended consequences of imperial actions abroad. We would be less hypocritical if we acknowledged these abuses as we continue our campaign to have Dr. van Roosmalen cleared of his charges.
Lawyers for Dr. van Roosmalen, a naturalized Brazilian citizen who was born in the Netherlands, say he is in large part a victim of the xenophobic sentiment attached to fears of biopiracy. They note that he was tried as a foreigner, initially denied habeas corpus and the right to appeal the verdict against him, given a near-maximum sentence despite being a first-time offender and sent to a notoriously harsh prison.
. . .
Edmilson da Costa Barreiros, the federal prosecutor in Manaus who argued the case against Dr. van Roosmalen, did not respond to requests for comment. But an article in A Crítica, the main newspaper there, quoted him as having urged that the scientist be made to “serve as an example so that others will see that you cannot do as you please at a public institution.”
Foundation to help Marc van Roosmalen
Petition for the UK government to pressure the Brazilian authorities